Rural Attorney Shortage Deepening

Rural Attorney Shortage Deepening

 A decade ago, in my piece titled "Embracing the Legal Frontier," I shed light on the persistent dearth of lawyers in rural America and the numerous career prospects awaiting legal professionals who ventured beyond the bustling cityscapes. So, what's transpired since then? Regrettably, not much. The shortage remains a palpable issue, and the latest statistics attest to this fact.

In the United States, approximately 14% of the population resides in rural areas, but a meager 2% of attorneys choose to practice in these regions. To emphasize this glaring disparity, a 2020 study conducted by the American Bar Association revealed that a staggering 40% of all U.S. counties have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.

To magnify the problem, consider Nebraska, where a dozen counties find themselves entirely devoid of legal counsel. Astoundingly, only 7% of the state's lawyers opt to call rural communities home. Kansas, too, grapples with a stark contrast: two lawyers for every 535 urban residents but a solitary lawyer serving 808 rural residents. Two counties in the state are lawyerless, and eleven house just two legal professionals.

Why is the Rural Attorney Shortage Deepening?

Three key trends have conspired to exacerbate this shortage. First, post the Great Recession, law school enrollment witnessed a slump. Second, an increasing number of baby boom generation lawyers are retiring, leaving voids in legal services. Lastly, the allure of small-town life faces stiff competition from the vibrant cultural scenes and romantic prospects in urban settings. Even for those with partners, the formidable challenge of securing suitable employment for a professional spouse often hinders a move to rural areas.

My personal experiences corroborate these trends. Over the past decade, I've collaborated with a handful of rural lawyers across various states to navigate their transitions. While some managed to pass the torch of their practices to successors, a few found no takers and regrettably had to shutter their practices. They fondly recall the days when a bustling legal community boasted 10 to 15 lawyers, only to contrast it with the current reality of a mere two or three attorneys, most of whom work in the public sector.

Initiatives to Alleviate the Rural Attorney Shortage

States are resolute in addressing this crisis with a range of tailored initiatives:

In South Dakota, the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program offers an annual incentive of $12,500 to lawyers willing to relocate to rural counties. In the last decade, it successfully enticed 32 attorneys to these areas. North Dakota runs a similar program, providing a $9,000 stipend.

Nebraska's Legal Education for Public Service and Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance fund has disbursed sums between $1,000 and $5,000 to 34 residents who commit to practicing law in rural regions.

Illinois, through its Rural Practice Summer and Associate Fellows programs, grants $5,000 to law students who intern with rural practitioners and $5,000 to those who work as associates in rural communities for a year.

Given the disquieting statistics, these programs, while commendable, appear to be modestly successful at best. They may serve to mitigate an escalating crisis but not entirely rectify it.

Legal Deserts: A Perilous Dearth of Legal Services

Over the past decade, there's one notable change: the issue of the rural lawyer shortage has acquired a label – "legal deserts." With this terminology in place, commentators lament the adverse implications of this shortage on the perennial issue of limited access to justice.

While it is undeniable that the scarcity of lawyers is just one factor among many contributing to the inadequate access to justice for low-income individuals in rural areas, it may not rank as the most critical one. Access to justice, or the lack thereof, is an issue that affects both rural and urban regions alike. It's an unfortunate reality that poverty in America often results in inadequate access to justice, regardless of where one resides.

From a more pragmatic perspective, the shortage translates into inconvenience for the middle and upper-middle-class denizens of rural America seeking legal services, such as estate planning, divorce, or representation for DUI charges. The nearest lawyers might be situated two hours away in a city, commanding rates that are $50 to $100 higher per hour than what these clients are accustomed to. As a result, Zoom consultations become the norm, and face-to-face meetings a rare exception. In the grand scheme of challenges confronting the legal profession today, is this a cause for significant concern? Perhaps not, particularly when we consider the clientele of some rural lawyers, which often includes millionaire farmers with vast land holdings.

Unlocking Opportunities in Rural America

I might not possess the magical solution to attract professionals to rural America, but I can discern a compelling opportunity for lawyers seeking clients with untapped potential. Rural America is home to numerous millionaire farmers eager to engage with legal professionals.

1. What is the main issue discussed in the article?

The main issue discussed in the article is the shortage of lawyers in rural America and its impact on access to legal services.

2. How has the shortage of lawyers in rural America changed over the past decade?

Unfortunately, the shortage has not improved significantly over the past decade and remains a real concern.

3. What percentage of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, and how many lawyers practice there?

About 14% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but only 2% of lawyers choose to practice in these regions.

4. What did a 2020 ABA study reveal about lawyers in the U.S.?

The study found that 40% of U.S. counties have fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.

5. Are there U.S. counties with no lawyers at all?

Yes, a dozen counties in Nebraska have no lawyers practicing in them.

6. What are the three trends contributing to the worsening shortage of rural lawyers?

The trends include fewer people attending law school since the Great Recession, the retirement of baby boomer lawyers, and the reluctance of younger lawyers to move to small towns.

7. How are some states trying to address the rural attorney shortage?

States like South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska offer financial incentives to lawyers willing to work in rural areas.

8. What is the impact of the shortage of lawyers on access to justice in rural areas?

While it is a contributing factor, it may not be the most significant one, as access to justice is a problem affecting both rural and urban areas.

9. How do the middle and upper-middle-class residents in rural areas experience the lawyer shortage?

They often face inconvenience when seeking legal services, as the closest lawyers may be located hours away and charge higher rates.

10. How does the shortage affect client-lawyer interactions?

- Remote consultations, such as Zoom calls, become the norm, and in-person meetings are exceptions.

11. What is the term used to describe areas with few or no lawyers?

- These areas are referred to as "legal deserts."

12. What kind of financial incentives do some states offer to rural lawyers?

- States may offer annual stipends, loan repayment assistance, and fellowships to encourage lawyers to work in rural regions.

13. How many lawyers did South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program successfully recruit in the last decade?

- It successfully recruited 32 lawyers in the past decade.

14. What might discourage young lawyers and professionals from moving to rural areas?

- Factors such as the lack of cultural activities and limited romantic prospects can discourage them.

15. How does the shortage of lawyers impact estate planning for rural residents?

- Rural residents may face inconvenience when planning their estates due to the scarcity of local legal services.

16. Why is the term "legal deserts" important in the discussion of this issue?

- It labels areas with few or no lawyers, drawing attention to the negative impact on access to justice.

17. Is access to justice a problem unique to rural areas?

- No, access to justice is a challenge that affects both rural and urban areas, especially for low-income individuals.

18. What are the implications of the shortage for the legal profession today?

- While it presents challenges, it may not be the most pressing concern when compared to other issues facing the legal profession.

19. What kind of clients might lawyers find in rural areas?

- Rural areas may offer opportunities to work with millionaire farmers and clients with substantial land holdings.

20. Are there programs that aim to rectify the rural attorney shortage completely?

- While commendable, the programs in place may only serve to mitigate the problem rather than fully resolve it.

21. How have law school enrollments been affected since the Great Recession?

- Law school enrollments have witnessed a decline since the Great Recession.

22. What is the average ratio of lawyers to residents in rural areas compared to urban areas in Kansas?

- In Kansas, there is a higher lawyer-to-resident ratio in urban areas, with only one lawyer per 808 residents in rural areas.

23. What percentage of lawyers in Nebraska reside in rural communities?

- Only 7% of lawyers in Nebraska choose to live in rural communities.

24. How do some rural lawyers transition out of their practices?

- Some rural lawyers successfully transition their practices to other attorneys, while others may have to close their practices due to a lack of takers.

25. What are some of the reasons why young lawyers hesitate to move to small towns?

- Young lawyers may be deterred by the lack of cultural activities and romantic prospects in small towns, and challenges related to finding employment for a professional spouse.